Viking Orion is sailing our waters this season – promising to be the first of many homeporting visits from Viking Ocean Cruises. Peter Lynch trialled the three-year-old line’s unique Scandi-chic style.
My cruise documents arrive in a felt zip-bag with a quote from Albert Einstein woven on the cover: “The important thing is to never stop questioning”.
Einstein might have felt right at home on the Viking Orion. Its book-lined public spaces, planitarium (complete with resident astronomer) and lecturers (including a diplomat and a military historian) would have appealed to a man who produced the theory of relativity and hundreds of other works.
Viking Chairman Torstein Hagen, a Norwegian billionaire who has conquered Europe’s rivers and once launched 16 vessels in a day, says his ocean fleet offers “the thinking person’s cruise.”
We are beginning to see his point.
Don’t misunderstand. There’s plenty of fun on board the Orion, and her crew are probably the brightest, friendliest bunch I’ve ever sailed with. Their sunny smiles and attention to guests is a joy to behold.
But Torstein’s “no kids and no casinos” catchcry means his guests are adult not just in age, but also in outlook. This is a cruise for grownups.
We are on board as she takes her inaugural Asian cruise from Bangkok, Thailand, through Cambodia, Vietnam, China and Hong Kong.
The 670 Americans, 60 Australians, 41 Brits and 35 Canadians genuinely treasure the peace and tranquillity of sea days, when reading, games and good food are the order of the day.
The Scandinavian interiors are clean, light and modern.
There are nooks and crannies everywhere to hunker down with a good book or enjoy the free Wi Fi.
High tea in the beautifully designed Winter Gardens is as crowded as the dainty cake plates (egg and cucumber sandwiches with crusts sliced off, Devonshire tea with cream, jam and scones).
The Viking Classic Duo play cellos while we feast.
In the evenings, there are shows, an open-air cinema on three nights, and classical and solo performers around the bars.
Most guests settle into comfy designer chairs and sofas for a chat or game of scrabble and a glass of wine.
The port talks are packed and peppered with questions about the local culture and experiences. Enrichment lectures on Asia’s politics, the Vietnam War and the region’s history are also surprisingly well attended.
The five-strong Viking ocean fleet is only three years old, but already has a huge fan base. Australia is a focus, and the Orion’s visit has been a hit, with few cabins left on this inaugural homeporting. Half the cruisers on a 92-day repositioning cruiser from Auckland to Alaska are Aussies.
It’s not hard to understand.
At 930 passengers, the size is just right. Orion can dock close to cities – in Hong Kong we are at Ocean Terminal, just a stone’s throw from the Peninsula Hotel. We see this astonishing city’s nightly light show from the upper deck with a glass of bubbly – one of the best views anywhere.
One writer described the furnishings aboard Viking Ocean Ships as “Scandi-chic”. It’s certainly chic, with beige, cream and wood hues predominating, beautifully designed furnishings.
We get to know quite a lot about Torstein on our journey. As proud a Viking as Ragnar Lothbrok from the famous TV Series Vikings, his ships are a mobile billboard for his culture.
There is a small Viking museum, and Scandinavian art is everywhere, with an audio tour on the ship’s app and a catalogue in every cabin.
There’s a Nordic Bathing Ritual (it involves an ice bucket, steam room, cold bath, sauna, snow grotto and a scrubbing brush – not for the feint hearted!), a LivNordic Spa and even a Nordic Hair Ritual.
He may own one of the world’s biggest cruise company’s – next year, the launch of Viking Jupiter will make his small ship fleet the world’s biggest – but Viking is still a family affair.
Torstein’s daughter Karine is senior vice president, and narrates the art tour and the company’s videos. Mamsen Regnhild Hagen, his mother, has the naming rights and supplied the recipes for his Norwegian Deli in the Explorer’s Lounge on Deck 7.
It’s the real thing: Gravlax cured salmon on dark bread with mustard sauce, delicious steak tartare with egg yolk, herring of course. Her Suksessterte (Success Cake) is a creamy concoction that conquers everyone on board.
As we sail towards Cambodia, we begin to understand Torstein’s boast that he never “nickel and dimes” his passengers.
It means you can happily enjoy a fabulous holiday and leave your wallet in the cabin safe.
All meals are free, and the food at the Chef’s Table, Manfredi’s Italian, the Restaurant and even the buffet World Café is excellent.
Our “five-course gastronomic journey of traditional Asian dishes” at Chef’s Table included chilli soft shell crab, Thai spices rack of lamb and Yuzu cheesecake.
Wine and beer are served free with meals, though you can buy a premium drinks package for US$19.95 a night. We opted for one during our Chef’s Table meal, and were served an Italian Pinot Grigio, an American Riesling and a Loire Valley dessert wine with a running commentary from our sommelier.
We loved the way the staff at every restaurant made it a point to fill your glass just before nine, when free pourings stopped.
There is an included shore tour at every port, and we found most of them informative and entertaining.
The spa’s snow grotto – a Viking exclusive – steam room, pool and sauna are free, and spa staff have been ordered not to push products.
Our cabin had a Nespresso coffee maker, soft drinks in the mini bar and snacks that were also free of charge.
We never felt pressured to buy anything – a very pleasant change from some lines, which need onboard revenue to survive.
Our cruise in a deluxe Veranda (270 sq feet) with soft-drinks mini bar, one shore excursion included at each port and very drinkable beer and wine with lunch and dinner is great value by comparison.
While maintaining Viking is not a luxury line – there are no butlers – experiences – there are many more inclusions than most, making Viking Ocean hard to place in the customary cruise ship categories.
It’s definitely upper premium at a great price point. For Australians, it’s a value proposition that’s hard to resist.
According to the ship’s General Manager Marcel Gademan, Australians are already Orion’s second biggest market for cruises in the region.
Many on board the Orion for this trip are Viking newbies, attracted by the size and style.
Noreen from Brisbane is on her fourth Viking ocean trip – an astonishing record considering it’s a brand new line.
“We’ve found the one we like,” she told us. ‘The food, the décor – we really like it all.”
Like Torstein’s river fleet, the ocean vessels are identical in almost every aspect, so passengers feel at home right away.
It was the proud boast of executive chef Edward Phillips that consistency in flavour across the fleet was a passion. Even the menus, apart from local dishes, are exactly the same.
If that sounds boring, it isn’t.
Food is a high point. Manfredi’s – impishly named after one of rival ultra-luxe line Silversea’s owners – is one of the best Italian restaurants we’ve sampled.
The steak is a sensation and the zabaglione stunning, considering we are thousands of miles from its heritage.
Chef’s Table serves up a series of exclusive dishes every night and there is a Chef’s Kitchen, where you can go to local markets with Edward, then cook what you bought for lunch.
Viking insists it is more “deluxe” than luxury. But it’s hard not to compare its ships with lines that are in the luxury class.
Mr Gademan is very clear about where Viking sits. “Viking is more of a deluxe ship and not luxury. We want to be Viking, and not be compared to Regent or Seabourn,” he told us.
“We allow our guests to do what they want to do. The ship is their home. Viking is a very destination-oriented ship.”
We talked to dozens of guests aboard Viking Orion – mostly well-heeled boomers looking for value – and their verdict was similar to Noreen’s: “This is the one”.
Price wise, Viking sits at around $466 as day per person – a significant difference from Silversea’s $620 a day and Seabourn’s $892 a day per person for Asian journeys.
In a highly contested upper-premium to luxury segment, Viking’s value proposition will be hard to beat and is likely to prove very popular.
Cruise line: Viking Cruises
Vessel: Viking Orion
Star rating: NYR
Passegner capacity: 930
Passenger decks: 9
Entered service: 2018
Facilities: Six eateries, theatre, bars and a brilliant thermal suite. There is a gym, two pools including the amazing infinity pool off the back of the ship. The planetarium, which pipes pictures of the stars from the vessel’s telescope onto a ceiling screen, is amazing. Cinema under the stars is also a great experience.
Bookings: Viking is offering journeys of up to 29 days in Asia and Australia. Orionis in Sydney from December after sailing from Bali, and Australian destinations include Darwin, Cairns, Townsville, Whitsundays, Brisbane, Newcastle and Sydney with prices starting at $4,995. Some have free flights and extensions, though places are limited. See vikingcruises.com
Highs: With great food, service, design and amazing inclusions – no wonder Australians find the value proposition of Viking Ocean Cruises hard to go past.
Lows: One or two free shore excursions on our inaugural Asian cruise were a little arduous, with guides who need more training.
Best suited to: The 55-plus, well-travelled cruiser looking for a fresh experience aboard a ship that really has nailed this important market. To borrow Aldi’s advertising slogan: it’s good, different.